An interview with Litvak writer Grigory Kanovich
By Stephan Collishaw
SC – To what extent is the novel Shtetl Love Song autobiographical?
GK – True, Shtetl Love Song is an autobiographical novel.
Your character in the novel seems very close to his grandmother and goes with her regularly to the synagogue. Is the synagogue still a part of your life?
My grandmother Rokha was a very religious person. When I was a child the synagogue played a big role in my life. There was not a single Saturday, nor a Jewish holiday when my grandmother wouldn’t take me to synagogue. My grandfather was religious, but didn’t go to synagogue so often. He joked, ‘If you hear something interesting from Him, you won’t be able to keep it from me long, you’ll tell me.’ I, myself, am not religious; the synagogue doesn’t play such a strong role in my life now as in my childhood.
You reference the mass murders that happened in Lithuania at the outbreak of the war, but do not dwell on them. Was that deliberate?
The novel is dedicated to what has been lost, to what has been destroyed — the small Jewish town. It is, in a sense, a requiem to all such Jewish towns. From the first line of my novel Devilspel until the last line of this, my last novel, all of my novels have been dedicated to that which was wiped from the face of the earth — those small towns like the one where my grandparents and great-grandparents used to live. None of them are left anymore; that Jewish world perished during World War II.
Why did your family decide to stay in Lithuania after the war?
After the war our family was drawn back to Lithuania, to the cemeteries of our relatives, because those who forget the graves of their ancestors are not worthy to be called people. Forgetfulness — it is an incurable and dangerous moral disease.
Did you ever go back to Jonava?
Yes, after the war I visited my childhood town; I am an honorary citizen of Jonava. The first time I went was straight after the war. I went there with my father and mother. Several times I went there on my own. The last time I visited was with my eldest grandson. Together we read the inscriptions on the Jewish gravestones.
What made you want to be a writer?
I started writing by accident. My classmate, the son of a Russian priest, came to me for some reason with the request that I write a poem for his beloved girlfriend. He liked the poem. The girl liked it too. I was happy to have brought pleasure with my words and slowly I became drawn to writing. Over the years I stopped writing poetry and turned to prose. Gradually I found my topic. That’s how my first story appeared, ‘I Gaze at the Stars’ [Ya Smotryu na Zvezdy 1959] which was the beginning of my saga about Lithuanian Jewry.
Why did you choose to write in Russian, rather than Lithuanian or Yiddish? Is the language you choose to write in important for artistic or political reasons?
My four years study of Yiddish was not enough to be able to write in the language of my grandparents and great grandparents. There was no political dimension behind my choice of language; it was chosen by God’s will. The war didn’t help improve my Yiddish. In Russia they took my father right away; he was conscripted into the army. The Soviet organisers of the evacuation sent me and my mother to Kazakhstan, to a remote village next to Ala-Tay, where nobody had ever even heard of Yiddish. I and the other refugee children studied in the same class with the Kazak children, where the teacher taught us in Russian and the Kazaks in their own language at the same time. After a year and a bit we found relatives in the Urals, in a coal mining town. We moved to join them and I was sent to a Russian school. From that point on Russian became my guide. So that’s how they took away my Yiddish. There was nobody left to even read it. All over the Europe the readers of Yiddish were taken and shot. They were killed in cities and little towns, in the villages and in the forests. For those who survived the concentration camps and exile, the reading of literary fiction was not top of their priorities.
Who influenced you as a writer?
The biggest, most decisive influence on me was not that of a writer, but [the artist] Marc Chagall. After visiting Paris and having seen his paintings in the museum, with Jews floating into the sky, I said to myself, ‘Try doing this in prose.’
Did being a writer in the Soviet Union put a pressure on what you wrote, limit you, or force you to consider how you wrote?
At the very beginning of my creative life in the Soviet Union the authorities began a campaign against Jewish values. They brutally murdered Mikhoels [the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre]. They closed his theatre and began taking Jewish organisations and their leaders to court. They dissolved the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. They even accused [Solomon] Lozovsky, who had been the deputy minister of the foreign affairs of the USSR, with Zionism. It’s impossible to list all of the cases of persecution. In such circumstances it wasn’t safe to write on Jewish topics without risk of retribution. My father, a tailor, said to me, ‘if you want your dinner in prison, then carry on writing.’ In these circumstances, my ability to write freely was circumscribed.
Are you writing anything at the moment?
I stopped writing in 2012. ‘Shtetl Love Song’ is my last novel. These days I spend my time answering questions to students on MA and BA programmes in Lithuania and Israel, as well as in other European countries, who write academic essays on my creative work. Apart from that I keep up a wide correspondence with my readers.
Why is it still important to write about what happened in the Second World War?
In numerous articles I have sharply condemned the killings of Jews in Lithuania by local supporters of the German occupation. I think that Lithuania is still afraid to openly and resolutely accept the full extent of the national tragedy of the Jews in Lithuania.
Do you think the Lithuanian government has done enough to preserve the memory of their Jewish heritage in Lithuania?
I have been for a long time now of the opinion that Lithuanian government has not done enough, it has done too little to preserve Jewish heritage in Lithuania.
Do you still consider yourself to be a Lithuanian writer?
I have never called myself a Lithuanian. I am a Russian speaking writer who was born and lived in Lithuania. By birth I am a Jew, and as long as I live I will stay such.
It is a miracle that Grigory Kanovich, one of Lithuania’s most prominent Jewish writers, survived the Second World War. 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish community were massacred by the invading German troops and their local Lithuanian collaborators.
Kanovich’s small family were fleeing the Nazi invasion when the line of refugees they were travelling with was attacked by a German plane. Counter-intuitively, Grigory Kanovich’s mother dragged the boy into a haystack in the middle of a field while the other Jews hid in a copse.
It was an action that was to save their lives.
The scene is dramatically retold in Grigory Kanovich’s moving novel, Shtetl Love Song, published for the first time in English, about growing up in a small town in Lithuania before the Second World War.
The novel is a paean to his mother, Hennie, and his father’s mother Rokha-the-Samurai. But it is also a love song to the shtetl, the Jewish communities that existed in every Lithuanian town. He peels back the surface of the rich community that lived there, the cobbler, the tailor, the shop-owners and Socialist dreamers, the beggars and the braggarts.
It is a requiem for the pre-war Jewish shtetl, for a people and a way of life that was destroyed in the holocaust.
Grigory Kanovich is one of Lithuania’s most prominent novelists. He has been the winner of a whole array of awards, including the National Prize for Culture and Arts and, for his final novel, the Liudas Dovydenas Prize awarded by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union.
Kanovich’s novels have been translated into many languages and sold in their millions.
Born in Jonava, near Kaunas, in 1929, he was twelve years old when the Second World War broke out and his family was forced to flee to safety in Russia. After the war Kanovich returned to Lithuania from exile in Kazakhstan, settling in Vilnius where the author graduated from Vilnius University.
As well as a prominent novelist, Kanovich is a renowned playwright and wrote screenplays for the Lithuanian Film Studios. A play based on his novels is about to open at the Barbican Theatre in London.
Dissident Lithuanian poet and academic Tomas Venclova, has called Grigory Kanovich the ‘last link in the chain’ of Litvak literature. He is the last Lithuanian Jewish author with first-hand experience of the shtetls and he has dedicated his life to preserving the memory of those communities in his beautiful and moving novels.
As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented, ‘Kanovich makes us feel and see a world that has long disappeared.’
In 1993 the writer moved to Israel, where he now lives.
Grigory Kanovich’s last novel, ‘Shtetl Love Song’ is available in English now, published by Noir Press. ISBN: 978-0995560024